Give Me a Crash Course In ... US visas for the Irish

A ‘landmark deal’ with US could allow thousands of Irish live and work there

America is full of people of Irish descent. Why is it so hard to move there?

Indeed. More than 35 million Americans claim Irish heritage, but since the mid-1960s, we have had little special treatment when it comes to applying for visas to live in the US. Ireland has long argued that the number of visas allocated to Irish citizens in America should better reflect the strong historic link between the two countries.

What’s on the table?

Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal and Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner introduced a bill to Congress earlier this month, proposing Irish citizens become eligible for the E3 visa programme, currently limited to Australians. This Wednesday the House of Representatives voted in favour of the bill during a debate in Congress, but it still must secure Senate approval.

What is an E3 visa, and why are Australians the only ones eligible?

Australia clinched a deal for its citizens as part of a trade agreement back in 2005, allowing them to apply for a renewable E3 visa to work in the US for two years. The scheme is capped at 10,500 visas annually, but currently, only about half are taken up every year; if this bill passes, Irish citizens would be eligible for the unused quota, amounting to about 5,000 every year.

Who will qualify?

To apply for an E3, you must have third-level qualification or 12 years managerial experience, and a job offer from a registered employer.


Is this a deal for the undocumented Irish too?

As it stands the Bill only applies to future flows of Irish people rather than undocumented Irish living in the United States.

Why now?

Ireland has been pitching for inclusion in the E3 scheme for years; it came close in 2015, but the bill failed to secure enough support in Congress. This time it has the backing of House Speaker Paul Ryan, and president Donald Trump has also indicated his support for a deal for the Irish.

Is Trump not against immigration?

At the White House this St Patrick's Day, Trump made "fast friends" with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, referring to Ireland as a "wonderful country" and signalling his support for a deal for the undocumented Irish. The Irish delegation explained to the president that there were only about 10,000 Irish people now thought to be living illegally in the US, a figure much lower than the 50,000 usually cited, which possibly made a special deal for the Irish more politically palatable.

What has Ireland offered in return?

In exchange, Ireland would ease the requirements for Americans who want to retire in Ireland. At the moment, all non-EEA citizens looking to retire here need to have an annual income of at least €50,000, and are not permitted to work. Income thresholds may be lowered for American citizens, and permission given for them to work 20 hours per week.

How likely is the bill to pass?

The bill has passed through the House of Representatives, but it still must secure unanimous consent in the Senate, which will require agreement of all 100 Senators. Speaking on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the Irish Government's special envoy to the US Congress John Deasy he was "under no illusions how difficult that may be".

Immigration reform campaigners say they are "cautiously optimistic". Chicago-based Senator Billy Lawless, appointed by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny to represent the Irish diaspora, says "it is the best chance at immigration reform that we have had in 20 years".

If this doesn’t pass, what are my options if I want to move to America?

Aside from the popular J-1 visa programme for students and recent graduates, Irish citizens only have three main options: to marry an American citizen, get an employer to sponsor them for a H1B visa (which lasts just six years), or chance their luck in the annual Diversity Visa Lottery for a green card, but only about 160 Irish win a green card this way every year.

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine